Sunday, November 12, 2006

Jewish translators salvaged Arab philosophy

What part did the Jews play in the transmission of knowledge from the Arabs to the West in medieval times? Paul Fenton, a professor of Hebrew language and civilisation at the Sorbonne and a leading expert on Islamic thought, says in an interview in Information juive (October 2006) that their role was significant, though not exclusive.

It all began when the Jews who fled Almohad (Muslim fundamentalist) persecutions in Andalusia in the 11th century took refuge in southern France. For the benefit of their non-Arabic speaking co-religionists they began to translate Jewish works written in Arabic, such as Duties of the heart by Bahya Ibn Paquda. They also translated the works of their contemporary Maimonides who himself had found refuge in Fostat (Old Cairo).

It was through these Jewish translators that the learned men of France, Italy and England discovered the treasures of the Graeco-Arab heritage. It was thanks to these Jewish translators that works by Averroes and Al Farrabi were translated first into Hebrew then Latin. Between the 11th and 15th centuries, the Jews translated countless Arab texts from the original, from Syriac or from Greek.

Five generations of the ibn Tibbon family were a veritable dynasty of translators over two centuries. Judah ibn Tibbon, the 'father of translators' , used to say in the 12th century that the Jews in Arab countries preferred to write in Arabic. This is because Hebrew was only a Talmudic language until the ibn Tibbons modernised and enriched it, making Hebrew more suited to expressing philosophical concepts. Neologisms invented by the ibn Tibbons are still in use in modern Hebrew. In the colonial period in Algeria and Morocco Jews fulfilled a similar role as Arabic translators for the French administration.

The Jews translated the work of ibn Rushd (Averroes) into Hebrew at a time when the Arabs were burning his books in Cordoba. If you wish to access Ibn Rushd's entire body of work you have no choice but to read it in Hebrew.

The translation process peaked in the 13th and 14th centuries. After that date philosophy went into decline and the dark ages set in. Averroes was banned. Muslim fundamentalism destroyed and marginalised this whole rich period.

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